Ten Shots with Roger Stolle of Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art

By Georgetown Fats
July 2011

(photo by Lou Bopp)
Whether it is artists pouring their souls into their music, or the fans putting their own money and talents into the music to make sure it is heard, it is tough not to be drawn to the level of passion in blues music.

Over far too many beers, I had a chance to speak with and pick the brain of Roger Stolle of Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art in Clarksdale Mississippi.

This is not a transcription of that conversation.

Georgetown Fats - So in addition to your "Down in the Delta" column for Blues Revue magazine, your weekly call-in slot on Bill Wax's Bluesville radio show (XM/Sirius), being a co-producer on blues documentaries ("M for Mississippi," "Hard Times"), booking gigs at Ground Zero Blues Club and being the chief cook and bottle washer of the annual Juke Joint Festival, I understand your first book is set to be released soon. Can you tell me a little about your book, and where it is available?

Roger Stolle - Yes. My new book is called the "Hidden History of Mississippi Blues" -- published by The History Press with photography by Lou Bopp. It is (hopefully) a fun and informative book that starts with a brief introduction of how a white, suburban Ohio kid like me got into blues and ultimately moved to Mississippi. Then I take readers on the journey with me. I start with the earliest references to blues music in Mississippi, carry on through the reason why this music came from here (hint: cotton), and explore how the music spread first northward and then to the world. I also include chapters on the Delta's legendary "Crossroads" mythology and Mississippi's famed juke joint culture. I close out the book with a series of deep blues interviews with some of the men who were there and lived to tell about it. They share their stories of sharecropping, house parties, prisons and chain gangs -- and tie it all into the highly personal and original blues music they play.

Georgetown Fats - If you could fall down on your knees at The Crossroads to make your own deal with the Devil, just what would your deal with the Devil entail?

Roger Stolle - The deal would have to state that I can keep my soul! Seriously, I can't imagine there is anything important enough in this life to deal with the Devil over. That said, we all have to deal with some 'devils' in this world sometimes to accomplish good things. Sometimes you've got to just bite your tongue and get things done. You gotta do what you gotta do. And (as my buddy Red would say) "it is what it is" at that point.

Georgetown Fats – While I found the shelves at Cat Head to be stocked with a wealth of music I didn’t know I needed but now have to have, I am curious about your personal collection. What artist or alleged seminal recording would I be surprised to see you didn’t have in your own personal collection?

Roger Stolle - Hmm. Good question. Frankly, I don't really have much from the rockin' contemporary guys in my collection -- though maybe that's not really a surprise? On the other hand, there are some guys like a Charley Patton or a Hound Dog Taylor that I've owned on cassette, LP, CD and MP3 at various times. Some music is so important to me that I'm a bit more of a completest -- to the point that I will re-buy the same songs over and over as formats change or updated collections get issued.

Georgetown Fats – Is there a follow-up documentary to “M for Mississippi” in the works?

Roger Stolle - Woo hoo! Yes. Finally. Jeff Konkel and I started production on our follow-up blues film last weekend, in fact. We filmed Anthony "Big A" Sherrod and Louis "Gearshifter" Youngblood -- and they were absolutely awesome. Basically, we're making a movie about Mississippi's surviving juke joint culture -- centered around Red's Lounge in Clarksdale. We've got some amazing, real-deal blues acts lined up, and Big Red Paden has promised to tell us where all the bodies are buried. The world theatrical premiere of "We Juke Up In Here" is appropriately slated for Juke Joint Festival weekend in April 2012. We also still have some marketing sponsorship packages available for music-oriented entities looking for a way to promote themselves while helping to compete an important blues project.

Georgetown Fats – Considering you already work with some eccentric artists, I was particularly floored by The Mississippi Marvel’s back story in “M for Mississippi.” Are you to the point where having to protect a musician’s identity so not to upset the musician’s church is no longer unique?

Roger Stolle - You know, Marvel's story goes back to just before we made "M for Mississippi." Jeff Konkel wanted to record Marvel for his Broke & Hungry Records label, and Marvel REALLY wanted to do -- but was afraid. His church family is very important to him, and he didn't want to become ostracized from the congregation. So, in the tradition of Charley Patton recording as the Masked Marvel (and for that matter as "Elder J.J. Hadley," for his own religious songs), "The Mississippi Marvel" was born. We are in conversations now with Marvel about future plans; he MAY at some point want to come out of the shadows under his own name -- possibly even for our new movie. We'll see. That guy is awesome and really could make some money playing festivals.

Georgetown Fats – Due to the world you inhabit at Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, “M for Mississippi” and the Juke Joint Festival you have helped a lot of musicians gain traction in the music industry. Is there anyone in particular you feel an increased level of accomplishment for helping direct their career?

Roger Stolle - I guess I would have to say Big George Brock. The first time I saw him was at an urban juke joint in St. Louis, and he just blew me away. It was like stepping back into the 1950s for four hours. Well, it turned out he was from Clarksdale, Mississippi, so when I moved down here, he started coming down more and more for shows and such. I kept trying to get record labels interested in him but none were ready to do something, so I started my own label. That first CD and the two CDs and DVD that followed re-launched his career. Soon, I was taking Big George to festivals in Italy, Switzerland, France and the UK. He went from a single mention on the world wide web to page after page of web reviews, gigs and photos.

Georgetown Fats – Which artist or artist(s) are you surprised that have not yet caught the consciousness of the mainstream blues fan?

Roger Stolle - Well, I think that all of the artists in "M for Mississippi" deserve as much attention as they can get. They are all national treasures as far as I'm concerned. One of the Clarksdale bluesmen that I'd like to see catch a break is Anthony "Big A" Sherrod. He just turned 28, so he's young, but he started playing when he was just a little kid -- learning from old blues vets like "Mr. Johnnie" Billington, "Dr. Mike" James, "Big Jack" Johnson, Terry "Big T" Williams, Wesley "Junebug" Jefferson and Robert "Bilbo" Walker along the way. He really is the next generation of Clarksdale blues.

Georgetown Fats – Through our couple of conversations together, one of them I can recall entirely due to my evening starting far too early at Red’s, you seem to have a particular passion for preserving that country blues sound and being a lynchpin between the generations of musicians. Is there a younger up-and-coming musician you predict will be the next big thing?

Roger Stolle - Well, I guess you can see my answer above, though Big A isn't a "country bluesman" per se; he plays electric, juke joint blues. As for as a relatively young country bluesman, I'd have to suggest 50-year-old Terry "Harmonica" Bean of Pontotoc, Mississippi; he does a lot of his shows as a one-man band which is just wonderful.

Georgetown Fats – Have you, as stated by a particularly pithy Clarksdale resident, stopped explaining why you willingly “moved to Hell?”

Roger Stolle - Ha! Yeah, moving here was an eye-opener, but most of the locals have really and truly accepted me into their community. Clarksdale is a very friendly and giving place to live. And the blues fans and musicians who visit here already "get it," of course. As you note above, I do talk about my move to Clarksdale in the new book.

Georgetown Fats – Given your knowledge of the music, Clarksdale, Mississippi and the artists within the state, when will we see a “Cat Head”-branded Tour Company?

Roger Stolle - I've done some of that myself (see my comments about Big George Brock above) and along with my "M for Mississippi" business partner Jeff Konkel (we took our film along with T-Model Ford, Robert Belfour and LC Ulmer to Norway two summers back, for example). That said, it is a lot of work to set up tours, and usually a money loser for me -- though we always make sure the artists do well. Jeff and I are always willing to bring our films, CDs and artists to festivals around the world if the situation is right. With "We Juke Up In Here," we plan to do some of the bigger national/international festivals -- screening the movie, talking about it and then presenting some of the stars "live."

For additional information on Roger or Cat Head check out;

Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art
252 Delta Avenue
Clarksdale, Mississippi 38614

"Hidden History of Mississippi Blues" book
Clarksdale's Juke Joint Festival
"M for Mississippi" blues documentary
Cat Head Promotions (marketing/PR)

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